Iraqi Kurds dance to a different tune

Kurdistan comes straight out of a US government press release.

    Unlike Arab compatriots, most Kurds welcome the occupation

    It is a place where people look you straight in the eye and, without a hint of irony, call foreign occupation forces "liberators".

    Unlike most other parts of Iraq - where people are actively hostile towards, or barely tolerate, the foreign invaders - Kurds do not feel the strains of occupation.

    While Shia and Sunni Muslims have been fighting Americans in and around Baghdad in the past few days, Kurds on the streets of Irbil condemn anti-US attacks as "terrorism".

    A recent poll by foreign broadcasters that suggested most Iraqis were happier since the US-led invasion a year ago was heavily influenced by Kurdish respondents.

    The survey found only one in three Arabs believed their country was liberated - compared to four out of five Kurds.

    And if Kurdistan were Iraq writ large, then you might just believe the US had won the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds.

    Different state

    The road from Baghdad to Kurdistan is littered with so many checkpoints you eventually lose count. After recent bombings in several Kurdish cities that have left scores dead, the Kurds clearly do not want troublemakers on their soil.

    An oil-rich region in northern Iraq, Kurdistan has four million people (around 20% of Iraq's population) and has been virtually self-ruled since 1991 under US protection.

    Its pro-Western leaders – Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani – were both instrumental in helping the Americans topple Saddam Hussein last year.

    The region itself has a different feel from the rest of Iraq.

    It is verdant and mountainous, the people speak a different language, dress differently and fly their own national flag. It is a metaphor, perhaps, for the different state of mind you encounter when entering Kurdish territory.

    There are no gun-toting foreign soldiers seen elsewhere in Iraq, nor helicopters whizzing overhead.

    Occupation's benefits

    Dr Sherzad Amin al-Najjar, of Irbil's Salah al-Din University, told life in Kurdistan had improved considerably in the past year.

    "The threat of Saddam invading Kurdish areas has been hanging over our heads for years," he said. "Like the Shia in the south, we have suffered greatly at his hands but we are now free from the fear of Saddam and we still have our self-rule government."

    Sherzad Amin al-Najjar: We are
    free from the fear of Saddam

    Al-Najjar said ordinary Kurds had particularly noticed the economic benefits of occupied Iraq.

    "People's standards of living have gone up in the last year. The Coalition Provisional Authority has put a lot of money into this area as have UN agencies. There has especially been a lot of construction of roads, schools and water facilities.

    "As a result of this political stability, there have been many social and psychological benefits. The only negative thing is there is more terrorism here now, which didn't exist before."

    And al-Najjar is quick to thank the Americans for these changes. "The Americans have played a big part in improving our lives. So there isn't the hostility towards the US soldiers here that there is in other parts of Iraq.

    "People in Kurdistan welcomed the American action last year and they are happy for the Americans to stay for a while until the country is secure. Personally, I think the Americans will stay for a long time."

    Independence aims

    But al-Najjar is circumspect when questioned about what many Iraqis fear – that the goal of the oil-rich Kurds is to eventually break away from the rest of the country.

    "There is a difference between what people want and what they will get," he said.

    "Outside powers would not accept Kurdish independence because this could threaten the territorial integrity of many countries. So we are realistic and we are content with a certain autonomy within a federal Iraq."

    He added: "Democracy means that no one party can get 100% of what it wants – Iraqis have to learn this.

    "But I think democracy is a problem in Iraq because normally it is preceded by economic, political and social foundations. We don't have that here in Iraq."

    Common sentiments

    These sentiments are repeated in the streets of Irbil as if all Kurds speak in unison.

    Irbil residents seem content to
    remain part of a federal Iraq

    Both young and old seem to agree the American invasion brought the Kurds liberation, but are content to remain an autonomous part of a federal Iraq.

    Muhsin Majid, a cafeteria owner, told there was more work and better salaries in Kurdistan since the Americans had come.

    Dalshad Hasan Rasul, a sweet shop owner, said the American intervention has brought Iraqis closer together because of the absence of Saddam.

    And Balin Zain Ali, a waiter, called anti-US resistance fighters "terrorists" or Saddam supporters.

    Dissenting voices

    Words of dissent are definitely in the minority, and mostly uttered by non-Kurds.

    My Arab Sunni driver and Arab Shia researcher, both from Baghdad, say they feel like foreigners in their own country. They predict in 10 years the Kurds will break away from the rest of Iraq and take the region's oil with them.

    And an Irbil-based Kurdish journalist warns that people in the streets are only parroting the words of their pro-Western leaders and are not thinking long-term.

    "It is true that in the short term people in Kurdistan have benefited to a greater extent than anywhere else in Iraq," he said. "But what they are doing now is supping with the devil."

    "History teaches us that every American intervention in the Middle East has been a disaster. We have got rid of Saddam but now we have sold the country down the river to the Americans."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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